Passing thoughts about conference presentations.

As I mentioned in my last post, I was sucked out of the blogosphere for much of last week by the International Society for the Philosophy of Chemistry (ISPC) 2007 Summer Symposium .

I did not live-blog the conference. I did use overheads. Why, other than being a tremendous Luddite, would I use overheads?

One big issue that has me using overheads rather than PowerPoint presentations is time. As many conferences are, this one was scheduled within an inch of its life. Each speaker had 20 minutes to talk and 5 minutes at the end for questions and answers. Indeed, if the previous speaker went over, the next speaker either had to make up the time or incur the wrath of the conference goers by encroaching on the coffee and restroom breaks.

Now in theory, there's no reason a PowerPoint presentation should chew up more time than an old timey presentation given with an overhead projector. In practice, there's a near guarantee that precious minutes will be spent finding where on the hard drive or data stick the presentation lurks, not to mention getting the computer projection system to actually project the presentation onto the screen so that attendees may view it.

Additional time is lost as the presenter struggles with the remote control that is supposed to signal to the computer from halfway across the room that it is time to advance the slide. Where do I point this thing? Which button is which? Is the battery dead? Hey, it advanced, but it actually went too far -- so how do I go back?

And don't even get me started with laser pointer mishaps.

In short, the cutting edge technology seems not to work reliably for the academic types inclined to use it in giving their conference presentations. Assuredly, with time the technological issues are usually resolved, but this time is hardly ever the time before the presentations commence for the day. It's time that come out of the time allotted in which one has to get one's point across.

Compounding the problem is the way many academics seem to use the technology to compose their slides. You've heard the list of atrocities before if you haven't witnessed them first-hand: too many words on each slide, so many colors that it's impossible to tell which words on the screen are important, underlining and Capitalization that Make you Wonder whether the presenter has recently finished a stint as a copywriter for Cosmopolitan and has only recently broken himself of the habit of ending every sentence with an exclamation point!! And the words that fly in or do fancy tricks. And so on.

In 20 minutes, there's only so much you can get across to your audience.* Keeping them focused on your points is probably easier if you can strip out the extraneous words and the distracting effects.

My overheads were almost entirely black ink on clear transparency film**, photocopied onto that film by my department's black and white photocopier. Because I was working without my own reading glasses while writing the slides, the print size was large, putting a serious constraint on how many words would fit on each slide.

There was no pause required between switching on the overhead projector and starting my presentations. Changing my slides by hand, I did not overflip past the slide I wanted. When it became clear that not all the points I had prepared would fit in my allotted time, I was able to omit a whole section of my talk without having to flip past those slides one by one.

As well, I wasted no energy worrying about my talk being incompatible with the computer's native software nor about the computer crashing. I just had to put my folders of slides in my backpack and carry them to the projector without spilling them.

Now, those who read their papers at conferences may not have to worry about all the technical stars aligning, but you'll recall that I'm not convinced reading papers at conferences is a great idea. (Another bad call worth mentioning: spending precious minutes arguing with the chair of your session over how many minutes you have left.)

*While 20 minutes seems like the minimum time it might take to make an interesting philosophical point, the conference organizer hypothesized that 20 minutes is close to the maximum attention span you can expect of your audience. It seems a plausible hypothesis to me.

**There were a few hand-drawn slides. The busiest of these had three colors total.


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I did use overheads.

For this you are my heroine and my God. Where is your altar, that I may come and worship? :-P

(Of course in five to ten years, nobody will know what an overhead projector even looks like any more, much less know where to find one for you to use, and us Luddites will be stuffed.)

By Justin Moretti (not verified) on 15 Aug 2007 #permalink

Preloading the Powerpoint files onto a common computer and doing a flipthrough in the break prior to a session eliminates the technical difficulties. Speakers have to be ready about 2-3 hours before their talks: is this too much to ask?

Or have two projectors in use alternately so the setup is done on a small screen: a pad of paper used to block the beam from the projector.

Rigid enforcement of time limits by turning off the projector at the end of time, and of course including the "technical difficulty" time, would get speakers to plan ahead - or look like idiots.

But neither eliminates the awful slide design encouraged by Powerpoint. So speakers can still look like idiots. But that is the most valuable lesson from any conference: who looks like an idiot and should not be hired/tenured/invited/promoted.

Even more fun: when the overhead projector burnt out a bulb (in the old days) or the digital projector was crashed (new days). Some of us have learned how to give an entire 20 minute presentation with nothing more than eye-contact, our voices, and literal hand-waving.

And some of those have gone very well, thank you.

I chaired a session once at an international conference, where the session was attended by the amazing John Forbes Nash, Jr. (not Russell Crowe, mind you, the actual Nash).

The first speaker made the classic error of being so intent on her tranparencies being correctly oriented that she made no use of her microphone.

"Use the microphone!" said an older gentleman in the audience, with a corduroy jacket. The speaker glared at him, ignored the microphone, concentrated on her silly transparencies, and so the older man walked out.

I didn't have the heart to tell the speaker: "That was John Forbes Nash, Jr. whom you just snubbed, and chased away."

I think my silence was the ethical thing to do.

I had many nice conversations with John Nash, his brilliant wife, and their mathematical son later, anyway.

He asked me a question about H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine" in one of my stranger presentations, and I got to explain it in terms of pseudoreimannian spaces embedded in higher dimensional Euclidean spaces, "of which you, sir, are one of the greatest experts in the world..."

After THAT talk, technically a panel discussion, one of the other panelists asked me "who was that older guy you were flattering?"

I said: "That was John Forbes Nash, Jr...." and the panelist did a jaw-dropping startel response, and told me : "good thing I didn't know. I'd have been completely tongue-tied."

Anyway, in my day, we used transparencies, and we survived. We used mimeograph machines, too. And walked ten miles through the snow to get to the classroom. So there, web-addicted whippernappers!

I have to admit that I felt a little guilty after my teasing query about overheads, but at least it inspired a good blog entry ;>)

It is amazing how there are multiple technical glitches at every meeting -- it's a bit like Russian Roulette, even with pre-loading and run-throughs.

I don't know... maybe it's good for the soul to be humbled by recalcitrant technology from time to time. (How many PhD's does it take to plug in slide projector...)

By Neuro-conservative (not verified) on 15 Aug 2007 #permalink

I just got back from the ISHPSSB conference in Exeter, and Powerpoint mishaps were rife. Of course, using a Mac and Keynote, all I did was plug it in and away I went (smug, smug), but it ate into the sessions I was chairing.

And don't even get me started with laser pointer mishaps.

My mental image here is the inadvertent slicing of attendees into two by the accidentally wielded laser. SF Much, do you think?

I recently discovered a new type of overhead in my lab's conference room. A camera mounted on an arm that illuminates a table surface below transmits printed words or images in the field of view on to a screen using an LCD projector. The camera even has a zoom. For this gadget, the original need not be transparent, and printed figures may be easily represented in large format. It's a lot easier for me to prepare journal clubs if I just bring a hard copy of the paper to the conf. room.

My amazement at the novelty of this device was summarily quashed by the college freshman student lab helper, who informed us that 'all of the classrooms at his school have one of these.'

I still have a fond spot in my heart for transparency films though...


maybe it's being in the information technology field, but every conference I go to uses Powerpoint or equivalent as standard and we rarely (if ever in the last five years) have a problem. I admit, we all get together before the start of the session and load our presentations before hand, but then the done thing is to get together then and introduce yourself to the chair of the session anyway. For a while I religiously took both, but I haven't bothered for several years.

Maybe, people just have to get used to all these new-fangled contraptions :-)

Though I have to admit, some monstrosities of Powerpoint presentations do make their way through but they are rare in my area. But I remember similarly monstrous overhead slides before projectors became common.

I don't run into problems with powerpoint-type presentations. Of course, I also make both a *.ppt version and a *.pdf version of my presentations. I also upload both files to a flashdrive, burn both copies onto a CD, and post them on my website. These safety precautions haven't been necessary, but they make me feel all warm and cozy inside.

Like other people have mentioned, uploading the files before the session and checking your slides in a speaker ready room (or on the computer in the presentation room) eliminate nearly all tech glitches. The laser pointer, however, is the root of all evil -- all respectable projector/remote combos have an option for a pointer that is actual part of the projector (kind of like a mouse, but operable via movement of the remote).

Once, by the way, I thought that I'd cleverly avoided the powerpoint bottleneck by making my "slides" for an international conference presentation in a Word File, which combined text, equations written in plain alphanumeric characters, and 2-D diagrams made with little horizonal and vertical arrow-oids. ---->, ===>, <----. <====.

and so forth.

I rehearsed the presentation. It went well.

Just before I went to the podium, the laptop there was carted away.

"Does anyone else have a lapstop that we can use for this and the next few presentations?" I asked.


A gentleman rushed forward, and plugged his in.

I popped in my DVD, and the screen was partly incoherent.

The alphnumeric charcters were fine, but the arrows were scrambled randomly and the diagrams were thus gibberish.

"What's the deal with this Microsoft Word?" I asked.

"oh, I only run OpenOffice," he said. "The results should be identical."

I went back to purely verbal + handwaving. My specialty.

"Now, those who read their papers at conferences may not have to worry about all the technical stars aligning, but you'll recall that I'm not convinced reading papers at conferences is a great idea."

But you're not convinced that reading papers at conferences is definitively a bad idea?

On Powerpoint: I attended a talk given by a Nobel Prize winner that was set wholly in Comic Sans.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 16 Aug 2007 #permalink

Laser pointer arrows are practically invisible to many people with defective red color vision. Bring back the long stick!

By hip hip array (not verified) on 18 Aug 2007 #permalink

"... not convinced reading papers at conferences is a great idea."

Earlier this month my wife was one of 4 professors and adjuncts from her department who flew from beautiful downtown Burbank (old Johnny Carson phrase) to attend an NSF-sponsored conference in Portland, Maine.

Veteran of many conference presenations, my wife suggested that the 4 in the Physics & Math department rehearse their presentations together. Her motion was adopted.

"What's the big deal," asked one professor. "I'm just going to do the same as I do n the classroon: read my paper out loud, the same way it's printed on the page."

The adjunct with no publications who inherited the Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 courses that I taught for 5 semesters, because he was so good at asskissing the Cihairman, who in turn was Chairman because he was so good at asskissing the Dean (said Dean subsequently deposed by the academic VP for raging psychopathology exacerbated by alcholism), had a poster session. In rehearsal, he was unable to explain his poster at all, as all the work had been done by his students.

My wife did her best to teach the others what conferences actually were, and how presentatuions had to be audience-friendly.

Then at the conference, the Chair startled my wife by mentioning -- for the very first time -- and now in front of professors from other universities and colleges -- that he's just hired 2 new Physics adjuncts. Startling, as my wife has been a Physicist longer, and published an order of magnituide more (literally) than the Chairman, but was NOT in the loop on that hiring decision.

My wife did the ethical thing. First, she did not say anything at that dinner, because one should not air one's dirty laundry in front of others in the academic community. Second, on return from the conference, my wife went to the Academic VP of the university, who agreed that my wife should have been in the loop on any hiring of other Physics personnel.

Oh, the clueless adjunct who got my job-- he has been for a couple of years the replacement Physics Lab Assiustant for my wife, after the previous lab assistant (who coauthored a paper with my wife in "The Physics Teacher") quit in protest of the harassment by Chairman and Dean -- boasted in writing in the conference program book that he was "Professor of the Year" at the university. First, he's not a professor. Second, "Professor of the Year" is actually a minor award made by those students who only take weekend classes, basically for which teacher tells the funniest joked.

The Academic VP said that he wanted to fire the clueless adjunct who, by the way, refuses to set up Physics experiments during the noon to 1:00 p.m. break because he wants to have lunch with certain peopl mthen. The VP first said that the lab assistant would just have to eat lunch some other time, noon to 1 is the prime time to set up afternoon lab experiments for students. But the firing could not be immediate. It seems that the adjunct had taken a meeting with L.A. Mayor Villagarosa, and the local Congressman, and it would be bad politically to fire the creep before he has his follow-up meeting in Washington DC with the Congressman. The VP said that he's try to fire the guy in 2008.

And so ends another chapter in my wife's Adventures in Science and Ethics.

This also explains why I've switched to teaching High School science and math courses. There is academic politics in High Shool, too, but of a less virulent isotope than in university.

Never had a problem with PowerPoint that planning couldn't solve. But I have had some very big problems with slides. When my co-presenter said that they would print them out as they 'just wanted to do a few minor edits before the conference'.

With PowerPoint you can edit (read undo the damage) just before the presentation. With slides you just have to grin and bear it.

By woodchopper (not verified) on 21 Aug 2007 #permalink